WHILE the Northern Ireland management team is replete with well-known faces there is someone plotting Scotland’s downfall tonight who might not be so recognisable – and he is Scottish.
Given his long hair, it is tempting to describe Austin MacPhee as the hippy version of Ian Cathro, the young assistant manager of Valencia who made his name nurturing the likes of Ryan Gauld at Dundee United. They are certainly of the same breed. Young, intelligent and ambitious, they are making waves in the upper reaches of the football firmament without having played the game at a serious level.
Given his La Liga credentials at Valencia and tutelage of the teenage sensation that is Gauld, Cathro is the best-known of the pair. For the time being, at least. But MacPhee’s influence can be traced in Mexico’s progress to the knockout stages at last summer’s World Cup, after being recruited by the Mexican Football Federation as a video analyst.
He is now contributing to Northern Ireland’s strong start to their current Euro 2016 qualifying campaign. As an assistant coach alongside manager Michael O’Neill and the recently recruited Jimmy Nicholl, MacPhee’s responsibilities include compiling information on forthcoming opponents, which means he has been spying on Scotland over recent months.
He then has to find a way of relaying these findings to the players in a way that is easily comprehensible. Not always such an easy task when your audience includes those such as Kyle Lafferty.
“There is only value in information if people understand it,” says MacPhee, speaking at the Northern Ireland base outside Edinburgh. Despite having a psychology and English degree he is in no way sniffy. But then neither does the Cupar-raised MacPhee have reason to feel inferior in an environment where some players could be earning as much as £80,000 a week.
“Speaking to some of the boys here, Aaron Hughes for example. He has had 20 years in the English Premiership. The nearest I have got is a ticket for the stadium. But at the same time, there are things in my life I am sure Aaron can tap into.”
At the age of 35, the now St Andrews-based MacPhee already runs a sports travel firm, AMsportstours, with a £5 million turnover. AMsoccer Club, a not-for-profit community football club based in Fife, is what really helps distinguish him from the rest; over 500 players attend classes each week.
His own business commitments are one reason why, when checking his British Airways account earlier this week, he was informed that he had flown the equivalent of 16 times round the world in the last five years.
It was on one of these flights that he met a Mexican agent who landed him an interview for the head coach position at Galeana, a top-flight club in Mexico. But a change of ownership nixed this idea. In a way, he is relieved. “Mexico is a volatile place and the football is even more volatile than the country, so that might have been a bad move in hindsight,” he says.
“My business is nearly at the point of automation. The staff have nearly everything they need but I still need to drive the bus. Euro 2016 would come at the right time…”
The success of those such as Jose Mourinho and Brendan Rodgers and even Cathro himself means it is no longer a prerequisite to be able to show players your medals. MacPhee did in fact play two senior games for Forfar Athletic in the late 1990s before heading to the United States on a scholarship. He had a pair of boots and was determined to travel. After graduating from the University of North Carolina Wilmington, he moved to a third-tier club at Braila in Romania.
“I went from the land of opportunity to a place where people were starving and there were bullet holes on the wall,” he says. He then moved to a fourth tier club in Nagoya, Japan, where he stayed four years: “I was playing for a couple of hundred quid and a roof over my head. I knew I was never going to buy a house being a footballer, but I could see the world.” The big change for him occurred when he was out for two years with a knee injury. As he convalesced, he began thinking about the game more deeply. He studied for his coaching badges in his twenties after returning to Scotland, taking over at Cupar Hearts when he was only 27 years-old. In his first season, he led them to the Scottish Amateur Cup final. He describes it as “the project” now.
“In just ten months, I wondered how far can I go? I think that is my biggest achievement so far – take a team from tenth in the league to a national final and win the Fife cup for the first time in 110 years.
“AMsoccer Club now is what Cupar Hearts could have been. Working with a committee of six old guys, we took 3,000 to the final, we had 1,500 in the last eight at Duffus Park. I marketed it. Cakes in the shop with Cupar Hearts on them; a strips and scarves stall at someone’s house and a banner across the street.”
Tonight marks his fourth visit to Hampden Park on competitive business. As well as the Amateur Cup final, he was a member of the St Mirren management team at the League Cup final two years ago.
Indeed, St Mirren fans have a lot to thank him for. It was because of MacPhee’s contacts that Esmael Goncalves signed, the striker going on to score crucial goals in both the semi-final victory over Celtic and then the win over Hearts in the final.
MacPhee is saddened by what has happened at the club this season. You wonder if St Mirren missed a trick by not appointing him to replace Danny Lennon, who had brought MacPhee with him from Cowdenbeath to Paisley. However, Michael O’Neill had already recruited the Scot for Northern Ireland’s benefit. In this week of all weeks, does he have any mixed feelings?
“If you were offered the exact same circumstances, if you are Scottish then you’d want to do it with Scotland,” he says. “The main reason I do it for Northern Ireland is because I work for Michael. I believe in what an organisation run by him can achieve. So no, this week is not causing me any emotional turmoil.” Instead of MacPhee, it was Tommy Craig who landed the St Mirren post. Perhaps underling how football is moving on, he has already been dispensed with. Perceptions do appear to be changing.
Recent reports linking Rangers with Cathro were greeted favourably by many, illustrating how the old prejudices are melting away.
“The dynamic is changing with the success of certain people who have not played at the highest level,” says MacPhee. “I have been offered a couple of jobs in Scotland already in the lower leagues. But right now you realise that won’t get a management or assistant job in the Scottish Premiership without having played.”
But MacPhee might yet get there on his own terms. His dream is to turn AMsoccer Club into a youth development vehicle, a la Spartans, with an elite men’s side that can, in time, secure access to the senior leagues. Can Fife support another senior team? “We don’t want to be Celtic or Real Madrid,” he says. “That’s unrealistic. But to be Spartans is realistic.
“I think that could be achieved in time,” MacPhee continues. “The Lowland League allows that now. It is not something I would do. But I would want to put structure in place and give young coaches that ambition. I think it could be achieved.
“We’d need to develop a stadium,” he adds. “But it’s not impossible.”
Would he continue to use the term soccer in the club’s name, something many football-purists find offensive? Of course he would. “Why not,” he says. “It’s a bit different.” As, it is clear, is Austin MacPhee.